This week we are looking at the world of the nobility and the ways in which the transformation of religious culture in the twelfth century was felt in the vernacular culture of the thirteenth.
Among the most popular prose romances of the Middle Ages was a collection of five stories known as the Vulgate Cycle of the Prose Lancelot, or The Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The five stories include The History of the Holy Grail, The History of Merlin, The Book of Lancelot, The Quest for the Holy Grail, and The Death of Arthur, joined together to form a larger tale with the mystery of the Holy Grail as the connecting thread and center piece. The last three books of the Cycle are most intimately connected, while the first two provide background for the later sections. The Lancelot-Grail cycle draws upon earlier Arthurian literature, including Chrétien de Troyes' Knight of the Cart from which the above excerpt has been taken. In this earlier literature, Guinevere serves as Lancelot's inspiration as he performs one remarkable feat after another. She is the Lady for whom he lives and her word is his deed. The values expressed in this medieval chivalric romance are those of the nobility and revolve around the importance of lineage, adherence to strict rules of courteous (gentle) behavior, loyalty to one's lord, slavish devotion to one's lady/lover, and the exhibition of bravery and prowess through battle and the achievement of knightly "adventures".
While in Chrétien's version, Lancelot was portrayed as the epitome of noblity, the most valiant knight on earth, he appears here as a tragic figure at best and is supplanted by his mysterious (and illegitimate) son, Galahad, who transforms the knight's quest from pursuit of love and honor to pursuit of Christian perfection. Because of the importance of abbeys of monks (particularly white monks), hermits, and recluses in the story, the emphasis on ascetic values and chastity, the focus on mystical experiences of God, and the extensive knowledge of biblical lore, Christian ritual, and dogma, many scholars have claimed that the author/compiler of the cycle must have been a monk--more specifically a Cistercian monk. Loomis in his study The Development of Arthurian Romance, urges the reader to "...picture the author as a monk in a white robe, bending over a desk in a scriptorium or cloister, transforming the rough materials of chivalric fiction into an allegory of the search for God's grace."
The theme of grace is woven throughout the Lancelot-Grail Cycle. The Grail itself has often been interpreted as a symbol of divine grace. While the mystery of the Grail can only be experienced by those who are pure in faith (sinners simply cannot see its wonder), the Quest significantly begins with everyone at the Round Table being privileged to experience some of the mystery as they are all fed from the Grail at Pentecost. Later in the story, perhaps as an illustration of the redeeming powers of grace, Lancelot, whose sin so hardened him that he had not been able to see the Grail when he was in its presence, is finally allowed a vision of it after he repents and changes his ways. The idea that one must prepare to approach God is prominent in the work. Confession is of immense importance for the knights, with the hermits they encounter in their travels serving as their confessors. There is a strong sense that one should prepare for communion by thoughtful confession, and that communion in turn is one way to prepare for even more mystical experiences of God. Before any of the knights are allowed to set out in search of the Grail, Nascien the hermit requires them to first cleanse themselves by confession. When Bohort is in the adventurous castle of King Pelles and asks to be allowed to witness the mystery of the bleeding lance, he is told that he must first confess his sins and take communion. There is a tone of intense eucharistic piety in the story of the Grail, and the concept of transsubstantiation is dramatized in a description of the Grail experience. When Galahad, Bohort, and Perceval share a vision of the Grail, they see a small child enter the vessel after which Christ emerges from it and proceeds to feed each of them. The Christianity of the Lancelot-Grail Cycle is heavily mystical, yet it can be attained even by those at court with the assistance of grace through virtuous living and the performance of certain ritual acts.
Whatever the authorship of this text, remember the intended audience and pay attention to the messages communicated by it.
Lancelot Rescues Guinevere
Pierpont Morgan Lib., FR805, fol. 166r